Politics should ideally be about ideology but in Karachi, over the last ten years or so, it has become more about money. In the 1980s, we were divided along ethnic lines, but they have been slowly erased and replaced by financial ones.
The story of change begun in 2002, when Shaukat Aziz rigorously implemented an IMF agenda to liberalise the economy. Banks were pushed into consumer financing, lending was made easy. Banking, telecommunication and real estate grew. Import duties were minimised. Business flourished in computers, cell phones and luxury items. The media promoted new products. Middle class dreams were realised. People started discovering purchasing power. They bought cars, homes, refrigerators, cell phones.
Real estate became a focus in 2002 and this trend peaked by 2004 and 2005. A house that was easily available for one million rupees in 1999 was going for no less than eight million rupees. Food and shopping malls mushroomed. The government started to make new roads, bridges and underpasses to make property more attractive.
For those who were earning legally, there were plenty of places to spend. For those who were not able to jump on the bandwagon, they had their own way of earning from the city: land grabbing and petty crime. Snatch a mobile phone and you get at least Rs5,000, mug someone at an ATM and you can get up to Rs25,000.
Landgrabbing became a business and getting rid of landgrabbers also became a business. Banks hired bouncers, usually political workers or those with connections, to recover stuck loans and leased cars from people unable to pay installments.
Karachi was already divided on political lines, thus political connections were essential for the recovery gangs. In many cases, settlements were reached at the offices of political parties. Later, recovery gangs became involving in landgrabbing. To survive, they needed the protection of a political banner or flag. This is why more and more political flags were put up on grabbed property or disputed land over the last ten years.
It would be unfair to hold criminals entirely responsible. They could not have come so far without benefiting the parties in return. Financial gains of political parties are not easy to prove. But an evaluation of leader assets and their growth in the last 10 years could reveal this side of the story.
From Lyari to Surjani, New Karachi to Orangi Town, party flags have surfaced and people claiming affiliation with different parties have been dictating the rules of business in real estate and other money matters. This was also made possible with support from the administration, police, Rangers.
It is an open secret that the police and other law-enforcing agencies are beneficiaries. This is why people argue that the lifestyle of many officers does not match their legal sources of income. In some cases, the visiting cards of officers have been recovered from people shot dead in encounters.
The Rangers have been tasked with security of some of the city’s prime property but they also have a stake in the different business, especially the water supply one. A common perception at Karachi University, where the Rangers have been deployed since 1989, is that whenever students demand their removal from campus, a student clash takes place. Many circles believe the same theory applies to the city as well.
Many people believe banned sectarian outfits kill Shias to demonstrate strength and consolidate their support bank, get a piece of the pie. Police investigators cite the 1995-96 rise of the anti-Shia Taliban as linked to the killings of scores of Shias in Karachi. By targeting Shias, these outfits send a strong message to their supporters who then reach for their pockets to make donations. In a tit-for-tat response, many Sunnis have also been gunned down apparently by Shia outfits.
Whether it is Mumbai, Miami or Karachi, gangs or outfits start controlling cities when the system does not adjust to rapid economic growth.
A comment piece published in The Express Tribune, July 10th, 2010.